Andrew Justin’s pilgrimage from the west coast to roll with Zulu at Mardi Gras 2000 marked his final appearance on the streets of New Orleans as chief of The Wild Tremé Mardi Gras Indians. Blessed with “the gift of the Holy Spirit,” he invested $18,000 and countless hours of painstaking labor in his eye-popping retirement “suit,” highlighting a legacy as one of the city’s most prolific cultural ambassadors.
Big Chief Andrew Justin began preparing for Mardi Gras 2000 on February 28, 1998—just after returning to Los Angeles from the place he calls “home”: New Orleans. Four days earlier, he’d taken to the streets on Fat Tuesday, leading a one-two punch in the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade—The Wild Tremé Mardi Gras Indians and The New Orleans Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners. His own costume, intricately beaded and elaborately plumed in lime green, included a “crown,” or headdress, measuring 15 feet across. His boots were made from snow-white fox pelts imported from Antarctica.
Talk about a pretty, pretty big chief.
Chief Drew returned to Los Angeles, where he has lived since 1976, knowing that the combo’s next Mardi Gras outing wouldn’t be until the millennium. Most of the members are transplanted New Orleanians living in the Los Angeles area; due to the cost of regalia and travel, they can only afford to make the pilgrimage every other year. So you’d think that Chief Drew, who founded both groups and produces much of their attire, might have wanted to give the needle and thread a rest.
No way. “You know, I like doin’ this. I feel like a junkie sometimes,” he confides. “If I can’t be sewin’ or designin’, then I feel lost. I feel like I lost my best friend.”
For Mardi Gras 2000, Chief Drew returned home as a Mardi Gras Indian version of a Zulu warrior, masking once again in the Zulu parade. Costing approximately $18,000, his “suit,” as Mardi Gras Indian costumes are known, was almost certainly the most expensive, if not the most elaborate, ever made.
In the days leading up to Fat Tuesday, the guest house in New Orleans where Chief Drew and his family were staying, in the Tremé neighborhood, bustled with activity—and anxiety. Chief Drew, who has a history of knee problems, was limping. His left knee had become inflamed, and he’d left his medicine in Los Angeles. The upshot: He’d have to ride in a convertible for at least part of the parade, an arrangement that was subject to a flurry of last-minute negotiations with Zulu officials.
Meanwhile, Chief Drew was receiving a steady stream of visitors: the word had spread about “the man from the West Coast” and his drop-dead-gorgeous regalia.
Mardi Gras Indian chiefs tend to have a gift for braggadocio, and Chief Drew is no exception. Offering a preview of his Mardi Gras 2000 finery, he declares: “There’s no Indians down here [in New Orleans who] sew like this. And I’m gonna brag. You know why? Because I’m the prettiest.”
No question: The chief had created a vividly detailed storybook of a suit with symbols and images depicting, among other subjects, the historical connections between Africans and Native Americans, and the plight they endured under slavery and colonialism. Included among the designs were specific references to his personal ancestry, a fascinating mixture of European, African and Native American bloodlines.
Ivory-colored ruffles made of 100% virgin silk trimmed the shoulders, cuffs and Egyptian-style collar. Pieces of African ivory, mirrors and hand-made satin roses accentuated the beadwork; 1000 yards of ivory satin ribbon hung from the cuffs and apron; and four pounds of ostrich plumes beautified his crown and staff stick. Accessorizing the crown were a troika of feathered peacocks and a beaded portrait of the legendary Zulu warrior Shaka.
Chief Drew’s footwear—festooned with ruffles, roses and marabou (ostrich down), and studded with a pair of large crystals in the shape of teardrops—was also something to behold. Sewn onto the front of each boot was a beaded tableau, or “patch”—one depicting an African warrior, the other an African woman. The details, upon closer inspection, suggested their procreative powers.
Perhaps most striking, though, was the suit’s glittering multitude of diamond-like glass crystals—Chief Drew calls them Aurora Borealis, or “AB,” stones—and larger, colored stones—Italian crystals, as they’re known in the trade. Little wonder the entire suit, including the staff stick, weighed in at over 130 pounds.
“You know, if you want to be pretty,” explains the chief, “you gotta be heavy.”
An old hand with the needle and thread, Andrew Jude Martin de Porres Justin learned to sew from his mother and his paternal grandmother, Geneva Llopice, who owned a funeral home in New Orleans, Carr and Llopice. He recalls his mother bellowing, when his clothes needed mending, ” ‘Boy! Get that needle and thread. This is how you do it.’ ”
Chief Drew still peppers his conversation with the patois he spoke as a child. He grew up in Tremé, and his familial ancestry is in many ways a mirror image of that neighborhood’s ethnic heritage.
His grandfather, Adrian Guillemet, hailed from Bordeaux, France. He married Pauline Robinson, a native of West Indies. One of their daughters, Anna, married Chief Drew’s father, Maurice Lionel Justin, a New Orleanian of French descent. Also figuring into Chief Drew’s hereditary mix: Spanish, African-American and Native American bloodlines. “I’m telling ya,” he says, “I’m all mixed up.”
Anna and her sister Pauline Guillemet were Baby Dolls. A sisterhood of promiscuous maskers who cavorted on Fat Tuesday in the first half of the 20th century, Baby Dolls wore titillating outfits—short skirts, bloomers, satin blouses and bonnets tied under their chins with ribbons. They were, recalls Chief Drew, a rough-and-tumble bunch: “Kick a man in his ass.”
Jazz funerals were a part of Chief Drew’s life as far back as he can remember. A first cousin, Harold Dejan, the legendary trumpet player who founded Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band, performed in many of these processions. It was Dejan who first put a saxophone in the hands of Chief Drew’s late father, who went on to become a professional musician—playing in street parades and at Preservation Hall, among other venues. Maurice Justin’s brother George, now residing in Chicago, also played a mean sax.
Papa Justin insisted that his children study music—Chief Drew remembers not being allowed to go outside to play Cowboys and Indians until he was through practicing vocal scales and the clarinet. Perhaps because his father was such a demanding musical taskmaster, Chief Drew, who liked to tap dance on the sidewalks, shied away from taking up a “serious” instrument, gravitating instead toward percussion. He fashioned “bongo” drums out of oatmeal boxes and Community Coffee cans. “Put tape on ‘em—that was my bongos,” he says.
At age five, Chief Drew began second lining with The Square Deals Social and Pleasure Club. Maurice Justin’s brother Theodore “Teddy” Justin served as the original vice president of the club, under founder Dooky Chase. Chief Drew remembers watching the members assemble festive outfits for their neighborhood street processions, or second lines, in the garage of his grandmother’s funeral home (formerly the Lyons Club, the old headquarters of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club).
Second lining grew out of traditional African-American parades—specifically, jazz funerals. Strictly speaking, the “second line” refers to the mass of people—uninvited guests whom everyone expects to show up—who join in the processions, following behind the mourners and musicians (i.e., the “first line”). More generally, the term denotes a parade involving a brass band, Mardi Gras Indian gang or second-line club. It’s also the name for the dance inspired by the distinctive syncopated rhythm—the so-called second-line beat—characteristic of the music associated with such events.
“I used to love to second line,” says Chief Drew. So much so that he’d often play hooky from school so as not to miss out on the action.
Back in the 1950s, the intersection of Dumaine and Claiborne—the site of the Carr and Llopice funeral home—was a hot spot not only for second lining, but Mardi Gras Indian activity as well. On Fat Tuesday, tribes, or “gangs,” from different neighborhoods would meet up there and have at one another. Their rivalries—which often escalated into acts of violence involving straight razors, knives, guns and hatchets—fascinated Chief Drew. “I was inspired,” he says, “because I used to watch ‘em fight.”
Back then, inflicting pain on a rival was how a Mardi Gras Indian earned a name for himself. “Whether you was runnin’ pretty or not,” says Chief Drew, “you was highly respected. But now, it’s all about runnin’ pretty.” In other words, the rivalries tend to revolve around who has the prettiest suit, as well as the aesthetics of singing and dancing.
Chief Drew “masked Indian” as a kid, but never did affiliate himself with any one gang. He was, in Mardi Gras Indian parlance, a “rebel”—freelancing with different gangs when the opportunity arose, a practice also known as “runnin’ renegade.” Recalls Chief Drew, “I used to jump in with different gangs, man, because I knew how to dance, sing [and] sew.”
One of these gangs was the Creole Wild West, originally formed in the late 1800s. Its late chief, Robert Sam Tillman Jr., also known as “Brother Timber” or “Brother Tillman,” frowned on Chief Drew’s renegade ways. “When he used to see me,” Chief Drew recalls, “he would call me ‘snotty nose.’ He said, ‘Man, when you gonna join this gang and stop runnin’ like that?’ ”
The fact that Chief Drew’s family was relatively well off—Uncle Teddy would pay to have Mardi Gras Indian regalia made for his nephew—probably didn’t help to endear the young upstart to the likes of the rough-hewn Tillman. But alas, nothing in Chief Drew’s charmed pre-teen life could have prepared him for the abrupt turn of events triggered by the break-up of his family.
At age 13, he wound up moving to the south side of Chicago with his grandmother, Geneva Llopice. “I got real rebellious,” he says, “because I didn’t know why I was taken away from my mother.”
Before long, Chief Drew was running streets with the Valvadors and, later, the Egyptian Cobras. “I enjoyed it,” he relates, “because I felt as though the gang was my family.”
All the while, Chief Drew attended church. His grandmother, who’d promised his parents that she’d look out for him, insisted on it. She told him, “Son, you don’t have to worry about nothin’. The Lord will always take care of babies and damn fools, and you’re at the top of this list.”
As it turned out, the trappings of gang life proved more alluring than the gospel. Eventually, Chief Drew, having been implicated in a burglary, found himself before a judge. ” ‘You’ve got your choice,’ ” he recalls being told: ” ‘either go to the penitentiary or the military.’ ”
Chief Drew underwent training with the Army’s 101st Airborne unit, as a paratrooper. In 1962, he arrived in Vietnam. One day, while he was walking through a rice paddy in Fubai, near Denang, an enemy bullet found the right side of his chest. While recuperating in Newbrooke, Germany, he was diagnosed with cancer and would up having his right breast removed.
Like many Vietnam veterans, he returned stateside only to discover that people, as he puts it, “didn’t know me anymore. Then I turned militant against society.”
Running with the Blackstone Rangers, a gang on the south side of Chicago, he lived the life of an outlaw—stealing and dealing drugs to feed a heroin habit that he’d picked up in Vietnam.
Even after getting married, fathering a daughter and settling into a job at Sherwin Williams—where he worked as a lithographer, printing labels for paint cans—junk was a part of his life. Eventually he sought medical help, at a VA hospital, after having walked out on his job. (When his supervisor raised his voice, Chief Drew struck him in the head with a wrench.) But it wasn’t until witnessing a murder that he summoned the determination to kick the habit for good.
It was his brother-in-law, an attorney living in Los Angeles, who originally suggested moving out west. Arriving in 1976, Chief Drew, along with a friend, formed a maintenance company focusing on masonry, landscaping and roofing. Before long, he had enough money to make a down payment on a house.
Meanwhile, however, his marriage was on the rocks. His wife was a Jehovah’s Witness. “She went her way and I went mine,” says Chief Drew. “I wasn’t going to join no Jehovah’s Witness. I’m a Catholic, I’m gonna stay that way.”
After the divorce, he adds, “I started going to church, because violence start to come on my mind again.” He owned a rifle, and there came a day when, fearing what he might do to his ex, he decided to hand it over to a priest he knew. Ever since, he has attended Mass regularly.
Turned out that the woman who would become his second wife—Jacqueline Le Falle—was a church-goer, as well. “For about a year and a half,” recalls Chief Drew, “both of us watched each other. Then we started dating. For about six months, even before we kissed, we dated. Never tried to hit on her sexually or nothin’, because I wanted to find a real spiritual woman.”
Wedding bells chimed in 1992. At the time, Chief Drew was working as a mason for the federal government, in the engineering department of a VA hospital. The work eventually claimed his right kneecap, requiring an artificial replacement. After a brief stint working in procurement for the VA hospital, Chief Drew decided to embark on a second career. He enrolled in the National Educational College, in Commerce, Ca., eventually obtaining a degree in biomedical electrical technology.
In his spare time, he’d play congas and make second-line regalia. “Everywhere I go,” he says, “I never gave up my tradition. I tried to give it to a wider community.”
Indeed, even back in Chicago, Chief Drew found time to show off his dance moves and finery. At parties, he and some cohorts would sometimes second line to entertain themselves and their friends. They called themselves the New Orleans Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners.
In the 1980s, in Los Angeles, Chief Drew came into contact with a group of transplanted New Orleanians known as LA LA (translation: From Louisiana to Los Angeles). The group put on a festival around Mardi Gras time, but Chief Drew found their presentation lacking. ” ‘How would y’all like to have some second liners?’ ” he recalls asking. “They say, ‘We got second liners.’ I say, ‘No, you don’t. You got some ragged-ass people in blue jeans—ain’t doin’ shit.’ I say, ‘I’m gonna show you some real second liners.’ ”
The initial Los Angeles incarnation of the Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners consisted mainly of members of Chief Drew’s extended family who lived in the area. They first hit the street, with a live band, as part of the LA LA event in 1988. It was, according to Chief Drew, an arresting performance, what with “drawers goin’ everywhere, butts goin’ this way and that.”
The group also strutted their stuff at church parties and other functions involving L.A.’s African-American community, often raising eyebrows. The public, says Chief Drew, “wasn’t ready to accept it in California—a bunch of adults shakin’ their behinds.”
Eventually it dawned on him that the Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners would pack more of a wallop—and command more respect—if they were teamed with a Mardi Gras Indian gang. Unbeknownst to his second liners—and with encouragement from Donald Harrison, the late chief of the New Orleans-based Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians—he began stitching away in his garage.
Donald told me: ‘Look, man. You have some of the prettiest second-line stuff out there. Why don’t you start a gang?’ I say, ‘I been wanting to do that, man. But out here, these cats ain’t for real. They’d rather smoke that shit than sit down and sew.’ ”
Initially, Chief Drew didn’t worry about rounding up members for his gang. First, he had to prove a point.
A year-and-a-half would pass before he divulged his idea for putting a gang on the street to Shake ’Em Down Grand Marshal Don “Doc” Robinson, a physician and New Orleans native who, at the time, maintained a practice in Los Angeles. Doc’s initial response, recalls Chief Drew: “ ‘That’ll take a long time.’
“I said, ‘No, it won’t.’ I raised my garage door, here’s a fully completed Indian suit.” Doc reacted as if he’d been confronted with the handiwork of a mad scientist. ” ‘Oh, man,’ ” Chief Drew recalls him saying. ” ‘What you been doin’?’ ”
Appearing along with his second liners in the Martin Luther King Jr. parade in 1990, Chief Drew, got up in a white suit, made quite an impression. Joining the ensemble, in genuine Apache regalia, was Richard Hothai. A Native American whose sacred name is Walking Deer, he worked at the same VA hospital as Chief Drew.
“We blowed the public’s mind,” says Chief Drew. For his efforts, he received the Katherine Dunham Award, in recognition of having presented the best-dressed folk art performance at the parade.
Another venue where Chief Drew showed off his Mardi Gras Indian regalia was the Orange County Pow Wow, an annual gathering of Native Americans. He’d been turned on to the event by a Navajo elder from Laughlin, Nev., Jack Isaac. They’d met at the VA hospital, where Isaac, an artist, had been hired to paint a Native American mural.
Something about Chief Drew’s appearance had drawn Isaac’s eye. ” ‘What are you looking at, man?’ ” Chief Drew asked. “And he said, ‘Man, you Indian—you have Indian in your blood.’ I say, ‘Yes, sir. I also have French, Spanish and black in me.’ ” The elder wound up inviting the Mardi Gras Indian to Laughlin to partake in Navajo rituals.
Squatting buck naked in a darkened sweat lodge, as elders poured water over red-hot rocks, Chief Drew underwent what he describes as a “manhood test.” “They take a plume, like rub it on you, and tell you: ‘Don’t move, my warrior. We have a rattler around.’ ” Chief Drew didn’t flinch, even though it felt as if a critter might have been crawling on him, and thus was adopted as a “brother.”
By definition, Mardi Gras Indians pay ritual homage to Native Americans, who provided refuge to runaway slaves in colonial times. Yet few New Orleans-based practitioners of this traditional form of folk art can claim to have immersed themselves as deeply in “real” Indian culture as Chief Drew.
The Wild Tremé’s motto is “With Beauty We Walk,” a line from a traditional Navajo chant; and indeed, Chief Drew’s familiarity with the ceremonial attire of that tribe has clearly influenced his own costuming art, particularly with regard to incorporating materials obtained from animals. Over the years, in addition to ostrich plumes and marabou—standard fare for Mardi Gras Indian suits—mink, sheepskin, coque quills and fox pelts have figured into his regalia.
“That’s why we The Wild Tremé—we dress wild,” he explains. “We dress different from any Indian gang in New Orleans.”
For the Mardi Gras 2000 suit worn by his trail chief, Patrick Tyler, Chief Drew fashioned a crown from the head of a black wolf. Other elements of the suit included wolf claws and a wolf tail. Rounding out the ensemble: a staff stick incorporating a bobcat, which Chief Drew procured from a Navajo acquaintance in Tuba City, Az.
In developing his craft, Chief Drew had a stellar mentor in Harrison, a family friend who dedicated his life to sharing the history and traditions of Mardi Gras Indians with his family, school children and many others. For Harrison, who conversed regularly with Chief Drew via telephone, masking Indian was not something to be taken lightly: it was a source of strength, purpose and spirituality. In speeches at schools and through performances at hospitals and other venues, Chief Drew has spread this message on the West Coast.
In 1995, a Los Angeles-based organization, Women in Film, arranged for Harrison and his Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indians to perform at an Academy Awards event at the House of Blues. Harrison, in turn, invited The Wild Tremé—six Mardi Gras Indians, plus Hothai—to share the stage. Also appearing was Dr. John, a musical ambassador for New Orleans whose songwriting has been influenced by Mardi Gras Indian traditions, and Donald Harrison Jr., one of the premiere jazz saxophonists of his generation.
For the occasion, Chief Drew donned a suit inspired by Navajo attire. Made from sheepskin, it represented quite a departure from the traditional Mardi Gras Indian practice of sewing beads and stones onto canvas.
Donald Harrison Sr. was perplexed. ” ‘Andrew, what the hell is that?’ ” Chief Drew recalls him asking. ” ‘It’s pure skin, Donald.’ And when he looked at it, he said, ‘I’ll be damned.’ He said, ‘Man, I’ve never in my life seen nobody in New Orleans with nothin’ like this. You should come home with this.’ ”
Taking Chief Drew under his wing, Harrison made it clear that he expected a lot from his protégé. According to Chief Drew, he said “I know your entire family. I don’t want you comin’ home runnin’ like a little renegade like the rest of these loose guys—getting all drunk, loaded. Come home with class.”
The Wild Tremé, accompanied by the Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners, first appeared at Mardi Gras in 1996, performing in the Zulu parade. The invitation to roll with Zulu came after the second liners’ Doc Robinson approached Zulu’s chairman of Carnival activities, Joseph Falls. Turned out that Falls had for years been wanting Mardi Gras Indians to join in the Zulu parade, but the idea had fallen on deaf ears—gangs tended to regard Zulu as part of “mainstream” Carnival, and didn’t want to depart from their time-honored tradition of parading through neighborhood back streets.
But Chief Drew had no qualms about showing off to the assembled masses on the main parade route. “Why just let the neighborhood see ya?” he reasons. “When you roll with Zulu, you can let the world see how pretty you are.”
For his first outing with Zulu, Chief Drew appeared in an apron trimmed with wolf pelts. His boots were made from badgers—sewn into the eye sockets were 30-milimeter stones—while his daffodil-yellow crown, trimmed with purple plumes, included a 15-foot train. Impressive, but perhaps not best thing to be dragging along a parade route littered with horse manure from mounted units.
Toward the end of the route, recalls Chief Drew, “I say, Damn. Why is my crown so hard to pull?” Some of the younger members of his extended family, who were tagging along with the gang, were laughing. “Uncle Andrew,” one of them announced, “you got about four or five feet of shit on your plumes.” A nephew produced a straight razor, and, following the big chief’s instructions, severed the train. “And I left that shit right there in the middle of the street,” says Chief Drew. “But I kept rollin’.”
When The Wild Tremé and the Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners returned to New Orleans to parade with Zulu again in 1998, Donald Harrison Sr., who had stopped masking Indian at Mardi Gras, was waiting at the corner of North Galvez St. and Orleans Ave. Chief Drew spun around and sang a song for his mentor which included the lyrics “I’m pretty in the front, I’m pretty in the back/I’m a Wild Tremé Indian, and I dress like that.”
Eyeing his protégé’s knock-out lime-green suit, Harrison said “Damn. I done created a monster.”
Harrison died two months before Mardi Gras 1999, which would have marked the 50th anniversary of his first appearance as a Mardi Gras Indian. Before he passed, he told Chief Drew that he was tired of sewing and ready to retire.
Chief Drew had begun planning for his own retirement after arriving back in Los Angeles from Mardi Gras 1998. He knew that he wanted to go out with a bang at the millennial gala, with a top-of-the-line suit that would make eyeballs pop.
After consulting with his wife, a counseling psychologist at the University of California Riverside, Chief Drew proceeded to order $12,000 worth of glass crystals and stones from a dealer in New York City. That’s not counting an additional $4,500 worth he subsequently bought for his son Kevin’s suit.
For almost two years, Chief Drew labored for 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week, on his retirement suit and other attire for Mardi Gras 2000. One visitor to his home—where the chief offered a preview of his regalia during the summer of 1999, along with a demonstration of his musical prowess on a set of five conga drums—couldn’t help but notice that his fingertips looked as if they’d gotten caught in a meat grinder. “I got more holes in my fingers than they have people in the Charity Hospital [in New Orleans],” he cracked.
Chief Drew works in the so-called “Uptown” Mardi Gras Indian tradition, which is characterized by allegorical beadwork. But whereas other practitioners sometimes incorporate depictions of Native Americans engaged in acts of violence, or being victimized by acts of violence, Chief Drew favors representations of religious and historical subjects.
His retirement suit, as well as the suit he made for his son for Mardi Gras 2000, displays an obvious knack for evocative story telling. Arranged vertically in the center of his front apron is a series of three patches depicting Native American subjects. The top patch has a black hand and a red hand, with palms facing out. A chain that once bound the hands together has been broken—symbolizing, says Chief Drew, “how the red man helped the black man to break away from slavery.”
The green background has a smattering of red stones, symbolizing drops of blood. Below it are patches depicting a peace pipe and other Native American symbols. “The peace was broken by the white man when he violated our land and shed the blood on this land,” relates Chief Drew.
African motifs also figure prominently in the patchwork. Around the front apron are designs featuring warriors from various tribes. The outside of his left cuff depicts the African continent. There’s also a large stone surrounded by ivory beads, representing slave ships en route to the United States.
Befitting a Zulu warrior masking in the guise of a Mardi Gras Indian, Chief Drew chose to accessorize his regalia with a spear sporting a 22 1/2-inch blade. He imported the blade from Kenya, had it triple-dipped in chrome, and then mounted it on a broomstick. Seen up close in the sunlight, he says, “it’ll blind you.”
A stunning—and highly intimidating—piece of folk art, it’s trimmed with silk ruffles and coque quills. Mounted in raised relief on the bottom is a beaded patch depicting a ju ju doctor. Possessing protective powers, the ju ju doctor—alternatively known as a witch doctor or voodoo doctor—is an iconic figure found in the folk cultures of New Orleans, Africa, Brazil and the Caribbean. “I had a dream of how I would be as a ju ju doctor, spreadin’ my wings out to cover my people that’s in harm’s way, to protect them,” says Chief Drew.
His ivory-colored, plumed staff stick, symbolizing purity, features a beaded image of a dream catcher. A Native American religious icon, Chief Drew says that it represents “all the good dreams that have been given to me.”
“Some people say I’m cray-za,” he remarks, by way of explaining the source of his creative inspiration. “Cray-za means people think you’re crazy, but I’m not crazy. I just have the gift from the Holy Spirit…, and this [Mardi Gras Indian finery] is my blessings.”
Like a painter who explores specific motifs through a series of works, Chief Drew, in designing his son’s electric pink Mardi Gras 2000 suit, elaborated on the themes portrayed in his own suit. For the front apron, he’d originally planned a traditional representation of John the Baptist. Then one day in his back yard, where he often prays underneath a tree, he gazed up at the sky as a bird flew by. The sun turned blue and an idea popped into his head: Why not make his Biblical subject an Indian? Result: a beaded tableau featuring a feathered John the Baptist with war paint and crying eyes. A pale blue dove hovers against the background of a royal blue sun.
The tears and dove relate to the Book of John. “When our Lord Christ Jesus came into the Jordan River,” explains Chief Drew, “John the Baptist told him: ‘Who am I to baptize thee who’s so pure?’ ”
The Four Horses of the Apocalypse, from the Book of Revelation, emblazon the bottom of the tableau. The black horse, says Chief Drew, represents “destruction.” “He’s the one that’s riding right now, ’cause there’s so much violence in the world.”
The Biblical motif continues on the back apron. There are two arms coming together in the shape of a “v”; around the wrists is a chain with broken links at either end. The hands join together at the top of the patch, clasping a golden bolt of lightening. Between the arms is a pyramid with an all-seeing eye. The underlying theme—symbolized by the pyramid, lightening bolt and severed chain—is slavery. In Egypt, relates Chief Drew, “our Lord and Savior freed the slaves, fast and swift.”
At the top, spelled out in green crystals, are “Zulu” and “Y2K”. Across the bottom, on either side of the pyramid, are “40 acres” and “a mule”—a reference to what slaves in America were supposed to receive upon emancipation. But, says Chief Drew, referring to Afrocentric people, “We have not received our 40 acres and a mule yet.”
Considering that most Mardi Gras Indians make their suits with help from friends and family, the fact that Chief Drew single-handedly made Mardi Gras 2000 suits for both himself and his son is no mean feat. What’s more, the workaholic chief beaded patches for other members of his gang and stitched together every one of The Wild Tremé suits—nine in all, including his own and his son’s. The pieces for three of them—worn by his sister Mildred Collar, her daughter and her husband—were shipped to Los Angeles from New Orleans. After Chief Drew, a stickler for aesthetic perfection, completed the suits, he sent them back to New Orleans.
Then there were seven teal-blue outfits—accentuated with sequins, beadwork and ivory-colored pearls—for the Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners. Chief Drew made them in his spare time.
His prolific output is all the more remarkable considering the ailments that dogged him along the way. In late 1998, doctors removed his left breast, which had become cancerous. Then, as Mardi Gras 2000 was approaching, his left knee started acting up. Shortly after he arrived in New Orleans, it became so inflamed that he wound up having to go to the VA hospital.
If it had been left up to the doctors, Chief Drew would never have set foot on the Zulu parade route. “You gotta call this parade off,” he was told. “Ain’t no way you gonna make that.”
But Chief Drew had come too far and sacrificed too much. He was determined to roll with Zulu, pass the torch to his son and experience one last time the high that goes with leading a gang on Carnival Day.
As it turned out, arrangements were made for him to ride in a convertible. But a certain mixture of pride and adrenaline kept the pretty chief out of the car, at least on the section of the route along Jackson Ave. When he “opened up,” spreading his arms to reveal the insides of his elaborate cuffs, the crowd oohed and ahed.
An hour or so later, with Chief Drew now perched atop the back seat of the convertible, The Wild Tremé and the second liners arrived at the Gallier Hall reviewing stand. Chief Drew’s cousin Oliver Thomas, a city councilman, approached the convertible, microphone in hand, and offered a rousing tribute, calling Chief Drew “the best Injun ever in the history of the city of New Orleans.”
Thomas then passed the microphone to Chief Drew, who offered a dedication to his late uncle Teddy, whose words he recalled in a subsequent interview: “If you gonna be second linin’, be the best. If you gonna be Indian, be the best. Whatever you do in life, son—you be the best. Don’t go half way, because this is not a halfway house. If you can’t go all the way, then you leave that alone and try something else.”
Going into Mardi Gras 2000, The Wild Tremé wasn’t exactly a household name in Mardi Gras Indian circles. But after Chief Drew swept into town with all his amazing finery, certain people in the Mardi Gras Indian community began referring to him as “the mystery chief.”
Even before strutting his stuff on Carnival Day, Chief Drew was hailed as a cultural ambassador at City Hall, where Troy Carter, a member of the City Council, presented him with a key to the city. (Five days later, at Gallier Hall, he would receive second one, from Councilman Thomas.)
Accompanied by his wife and son, along with members of The Wild Tremé, Chief Drew showed up for the ceremony with his spear. That didn’t go over so well with one of the officers in charge of security. “You can’t come in here with that,” he informed Chief Drew, who responded by saying, “This is part of my regalia, sir. If I can’t come in here with this, then me and my gang is not comin’ in at all—keep your key to the city.” The standoff was broken when Jim Singleton, a city councilman, intervened. Chief Drew was admitted to the council chamber, spear in hand.
Once inside, the big chief was practically reduced to tears by a mysterious elderly man. Appearing just as the council meeting was about to get underway, he launched into the gospel number “Precious Lord, Take Thy Hand,” in a crooning, guttural voice. “He had everybody looking at him,” says Chief Drew, “and I was touched.” Then the old crooner approached the chief—who was dressed casually save for his headband, choke collar and alligator shoes—and said, “They took your country. Now it’s time for them to give you something. God bless you.”
“I told him I’m a Mardi Gras [Indian], and he thought I was a real Native American Indian. I say, ‘Damn. I look like that?’ ”
After returning to Los Angeles, Chief Drew had surgery on his right knee. Then, in December, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Luckily it’s in the early stages, so his doctors feel confident about effecting a successful treatment.
In the meantime, Chief Drew is keeping his focus—on designing and sewing, which he calls “good therapy for the brain.” He’s already beaded a patch for the crown of his son’s next suit; it depicts a Baobob tree, which in Africa is a traditional source of food, clothing and shelter. And for himself, he’s procured some mink pelts, which he plans to use for a pair of pants and matching boots. The suit he has in mind, incorporating a multitude of “top-of-the-line” stones, would also include a mini apron and a vest with sleeves. For his headdress, he’s thinking about having a taxidermist cure a big peacock, which, he says, would fit “entirely over my head.”
The Wild Tremé hopes to roll again with Zulu. Although Chief Drew says he’ll be more of an accessory to the procession, as opposed to the featured participant—the gang would be led by his son—it nevertheless promises to be spectacular. There’s even talk of including a skull-and-bones, or skeleton, unit.
Traditionally, on Fat Tuesday, skeleton maskers appear on the streets of Tremé wearing large skull-like heads and black body suits with bones and fake blood and painted on them. They are mysterious and, to many youngsters, highly intimidating. Legend has it that the tradition began after a merchant marine returned to New Orleans from Mexico, where he had been impressed with the Day of the Dead celebrations that occur at the end of October.
And, with any luck, The Wild Tremé skeletons and Mardi Gras Indians, along with the Shake ‘Em Down Second Liners and the Tremé Brass Band, will roll with a female Samba troupe from Brazil, whose members include one of Patrick Tyler’s nieces. (The Wild Tremé trail chief is a native of Brazil).
Chief Drew, who has been invited to perform in Brazil, is thrilled at the prospect of having Samba dancers leading the whole shebang. “Man, it look like they have rubber in their behinds, the way their cheeks be shakin’,” he says. “It’s all about culture, though.”
Meanwhile, if his health holds up, Chief Drew plans to keep bringing his own culture to a wider audience. While his knee surgery prevented him from accepting an invitation to appear, along with The Wild Tremé, in the 2001 Tournament of Roses Parade, there’s always next year.
“What I’m trying to do,” he says, “is keep the culture alive.” He adds, “You don’t have to just have that culture in New Orleans. Wherever you go, it’s in your blood, it’s in your heart. So you always respect what you’ve been blessed with. And use it—just don’t let it sit there and die with you. Because, you know, the legacy of the Mardi Gras Indians is truth, strength and beauty when it’s passed on.”